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Coloring with Pastels

Coloring backgrounds can be finicky, time-consuming and frustrating. In fact, many people skip doing the background altogether. But it can be fun to add colors to the sky or sea. I often try to create different effects that make the central image stand out from the page (night sky, underwater ocean). The problem with coloring the backgrounds is that it is a wide open space and most mediums will have issues with either coverage or time.

Suppose you want to do the background with colored pencil just like the rest of your page. They can give a really soft effect but it will take you hours to fill up all that space. If you're not careful, your pencil strokes can get streaky and it is pretty difficult to get a smooth finish even with the colorless blender. Now pens and markers are often quicker but it is even more difficult to get smooth blends. So what is a colorist to do?

Try a new medium of course! Soft pastels – also called chalk pastels – are the solution to your background woes. You can create extremely nice blending between colors with pastels. They give a smooth finish and do not streak at all. As a bonus, using pastels is very quick. My backgrounds don't usually take me more than 5 or 10 minutes!


FC Pastels - 72
What to Buy?

Like most art supplies, you can get pastels in a variety of grades – from student to artist quality. But the good news is, you don't really need expensive pastel sticks for backgrounds in your coloring books. Pastels come in two types – soft/chalk and oil. For our purpose, you need the soft or chalk ones. Do not get the oil pastels.

The second thing about pastels is that you don't need a huge set. Artist pastels sticks come in over 400 colors but you won't need even a fraction of that. A small 24 pack of pastels from Faber Castell will set you back about $15. It's a great balance between artist grade pastels and the really cheap sets which have more binder than pigment. These sticks will last you for years, so there's really no need to get anything bigger for coloring alone.

How to Use Pastels

In general there are 2 ways to use pastels - either draw directly on the paper with the edge of the sticks or scrape a bit into powder with a knife onto the page. Since we want to create soft backgrounds, we'll go with the latter method. Drawing with the sticks often leaves streaks you can't blend out since our books don't come with pastel paper.

Now I know what you're thinking. How do you combine pastels and color pencils in the same page? Won't the powder get everywhere? The secret lies in the fact that color pencils resist pastels because of the wax or oil in them! Again there are 2 ways to use pastels in coloring books specifically.

Do the Background First

In this method, you first finish your background with the pastels. Scrape some powder from the sticks directly on to the paper and then apply with cotton rounds or q tips (depending on the area). Don't worry about getting color inside the artwork, you can simply erase it later. Once you're satisfied with the colors and blending, brush away the excess dust (don't blow on it!) onto a scrap paper and throw it in the trash. Now finish your page with pencils as usual.

My issue with this method is that you need a fixative spray to seal the pastel powder. Otherwise they will more around under your fingers and spread all over the page. Secondly you might not be able to completely erase the pastels without tearing or destroying the tooth of the paper. The workable fixative will create some tooth but it can also tarnish some of your colors over time.


Do the Background Last

So far I have finished coloring pages using only this method with my pastels. First finish your page as you would usually. The darker colors do successfully resist the pastel powder but lighter colors may need to be sealed to prevent staining. Simply go over those areas with a blender and burnish it well. You don't even have to do the entire picture, just those areas which are on the edges of the artwork and close to the background.

Now scrape some powder from the sticks onto the page. You can do all the colors at once in different areas or do them one by one. Since I generally don't use more than one or two colors, I do it all at once. Then take your cotton ball and blend the powder all over the page with light pressure. You don't really need to press hard, pastels will move around very easily. 

I usually keep my backgrounds light and soft but you can add more layers if you want vibrant effects. Just keep in mind that if you add multiple layers, you will most likely need fixative spray to seal the pastels. I simply keep a few sheets of paper in between the pages for a couple of days and then remove them. So far I have not had any pastel powder sticking to the opposite page.

Fun Effects

Remember how I said colored pencils resist pastel powder? This is a great tip to keep in mind since you can create some really fun effects with it. I followed a tutorial by Peta Hewitt and made the bubbles on the Jellyfish page to make it seem like it was underwater! As you can see, I use very little powder to create soft backgrounds. So I generally don't need any fixative.

This is just one example of what you can do with pastels. Try creating a line of mountains or trees in the background of a forest page. Or some soft waves for underwater scenes. The list of possibilities is practically endless! And the best part is that pastels are cheap, easy and quick. So get going and (re)discover the fun of using chalk (pastels)!

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